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Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Sonata No.1 SZ75 (1921/2) [33:21]
Violin Sonata No.2 SZ76 (1921/2) [19:27]
Sonata for Solo Violin SZ117 (1944) [26:10]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin); Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
rec. Deutschland Radio, Cologne, 20-23 January 2003. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5181772 [78:43]
Experience Classicsonline

The EMI/Virgin re-issues continue apace, with this latest one being as recommendable as any I can think of. When it was first released in 2004, it shot to the top of many critics’ lists of discs of the year and, given that recordings of the Bartók violin and piano sonatas are not exactly thick on the ground, should do well all over again in its new lower-priced format.

The partnership of these two supremely intelligent, probing artists did not necessarily guarantee success, but it turns out they rise to every challenge with a degree of technical virtuosity and poetic mastery such that criticism is, indeed, virtually silenced. Andsnes’ command of the fearsome piano parts is shown at the opening of the First Sonata, where the balance between the rhapsodic freedom of the arpeggiated figures and keeping structural tautness is spot-on. The rootless, exotically coloured piano chords at 4:04 remind us that Bartók was always a great admirer of Debussy. The playing is never too aggressive – always a danger in Bartók – as the climactic point at 10:03 shows. Tetzlaff’s tonal sheen and silvery line are shown at their best in the slow movement, a long threnody that unwinds and twists with angular uncertainty. My main rival version, from Gyorgy Pauk and Jeno Jandó on Naxos, shows a slight grittiness that is in some ways rougher and more appropriate, but there’s no denying the sheer luxuriance of tone colour from Tetzlaff and Andsnes. Again, Debussian whole tones abound, contrasting with the ‘Gypsy’ fiddling at 4:40-ish, where Tetzlaff lets his hair down. The finale is more typically Bartókian, furious, driving, percussive, and here there’s actually not much to choose between the two versions, as both are satisfying.

The more pensive, wistful opening of the Second Sonata suits Tetzlaff and Andsnes perfectly and once again shows them revelling in the playful contrasts that the composer explores. The second of the Sonata’s two movements is another Bartókian ride on a fast, rhythmic machine and is a tour-de-force in these players’ hands.

The coupling for the two sonatas is here virtually ideal, the Sonata for Solo Violin. Written famously for Menuhin in Bartók’s final, largely unhappy American period, it is as technically challenging as anything he produced. A return to Bach prompted a neo-classical structure and the mood, overall, is very positive and uplifting, especially in Tetzlaff’s ebullient performance. He recorded the work in the early 1990s and, though I haven’t heard that recording, I can’t imagine it being any more persuasive than this, with its beautifully graded tone and complete command of the cross-rhythms and harmonics.

The audio quality is outstanding and there is an excellent liner-note from Philippe Mougeot. I’ve mentioned the Naxos version, a true gem of their catalogue (8.550749) and which has Contrasts as a coupling. It’s a very fine disc, but this coupling is even better and, given the lower mid-price, makes these aristocratic renditions of superb pieces very desirable indeed.

Tony Haywood


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